On Monday, the wheels were set in motion for John Bolton’s resignation as national security adviser, after he clashed with President Trump and other top aides. On Tuesday, Bolton effectively called Trump’s version of how that went down a lie. Given those two things, one would expect Trump to hit Bolton hard.
And Trump kind of, sort of did that Wednesday. But in a very weird way.
Trump has yet to tweet anything about Bolton after announcing his departure, and in a brief Q&A with reporters, he offered jabs at Bolton that were somewhat strangely offset by magnanimous comments. Trump’s justification for getting rid of Bolton was also somewhat odd, given that the big shortcomings he mentioned predated Bolton’s appointment or occurred very early in his tenure as national security adviser.
Let’s run through Trump’s comments.
QUESTION: A follow-up on your decision yesterday with regard to Mr. Bolton. What led you to decide to part ways?
TRUMP: So, John is somebody that I actually got along with very well.
A somewhat odd start, given that Bolton said the White House’s version of his resignation was wrong. Trump claimed in his tweets that he asked Bolton to resign Monday night and that Bolton did so Tuesday morning. Bolton claims that it was he who offered to resign Monday night and that Trump said they would talk about it Tuesday. When the White House doubled down, Bolton told the Daily Beast it was “flatly incorrect.” It’s also somewhat odd, given that a Bolton aide tried to distance Bolton from whatever might come next from Trump’s foreign policy.
But Trump soon began talking about Bolton’s shortcomings:
TRUMP: He made some very big mistakes. When he talked about the “Libyan model” for Kim Jong Un, that was not a good statement to make. You just take a look at what happened with Gaddafi. That was not a good statement to make. And it set us back.
This refers to Bolton saying in April 2018 that North Korea’s nuclear disarmament should follow the precedent set in discussions with Libya and its then-dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Basically, it means it would give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But the Libya model wasn’t particularly beloved in Libya, where they felt sanctions were not lifted quickly enough. And the whole thing culminated in Gaddafi’s NATO-backed ouster. As Trump alludes to, you can understand why perhaps North Korea wouldn’t prefer to use such a model.
But also note that date: April 2018. Bolton did this 16-plus months ago, and Trump kept him on until Tuesday.
TRUMP: And, frankly, he wanted to do things not necessarily tougher than me. You know, John’s known as a tough guy. He’s so tough he got us into Iraq. That’s tough.
This was the harshest line from Trump. But again, this was something he well knew — or at least should have known — when he picked Bolton in the first place.
TRUMP: And — but he’s somebody that I actually had a very good relationship with. But he wasn’t getting along with people in the administration that I consider very important.
Again, it’s weird that Trump seems to be slipping in these olive branches, even as he points to high-profile alleged failures on Bolton’s part.
TRUMP: And you know John wasn’t in line with what we were doing, and actually in some cases he thought it was too tough what we were doing. Mr. Tough Guy. You know, 'You have to go into Iraq.’ Going into Iraq was something that he felt very strongly about. So we’re right now in for over $7 trillion into the Middle East. And I don’t say it was his decision. You had a president and you had other people also, but he was very out there, I can tell you, and wanting to have them do it.
Trump, again, doesn’t really go for it on tying Bolton to the Iraq War, saying, “I don’t say it was his decision.”
TRUMP: And I disagreed with that decision from the beginning, even though I was a civilian, so nobody cared. But I was out there; I was outspoken about it. I thought it was a terrible mistake.
This is wrong. Trump didn’t oppose the Iraq War from the very beginning.
TRUMP: ... We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model. And he made a mistake. And as soon as he mentioned that, the Libyan model — what a disaster. Take a look at what happened to Gaddafi with the Libyan model. And he’s using that to make a deal with North Korea?
Sixteen more months.
TRUMP: And I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that. And he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton. And that’s not a question of being tough; that’s a question of being not smart to say something like that.
Trump sure makes it sound like one of the biggest strikes against Bolton was ... that a brutal foreign dictator didn’t like him? It also bears noting that Trump at one point was talking about “totally destroying” North Korea and “fire and fury.” It’s unlikely Kim liked those things, either.
TRUMP: So I wish John the best. We actually — we got along very well. I’m sure he’ll, you know, do whatever he can do to, you know, spin it his way.
Trump seems to suggest Bolton calling the White House’s version of his resignation false is just harmless “spin.”
TRUMP: John came to see me the night before. In fact, I think a lot of you people were out there waiting for me to get on the helicopter. I’m sure you have a shot to somewhere along the line. And he sat right in that chair. And I told him, John, you have too many people, you’re not getting along with people, and a lot of us, including me, disagree with some of your tactics and some of your ideas, and I wish you well, but I’d like you to submit your resignation, and he did that. And I really — I know he’s going to do well. I hope he’s going to do well. And I wish him well.
Trump is confronting an unusual beast here — a former high-profile aide who appears willing to speak out against him in the right circumstances. The president generally comes after such people guns a-blazing. But in this case, he seems a little uncertain. He seems to want to send a message that he will go after Bolton if it comes to it but that he’s still willing to be nice if Bolton plays the game right.
It’s a fascinating dynamic.